When we came to Israel, some 33 years ago, we rented an apartment that had just
been built. As the first residents, we dutifully went to the local telephone
company office and applied for a phone. Like most applicants living in a new
development, we were told that the wait until phone lines were installed would
be approximately three years. Indeed, nearly three years later, the necessary
infrastructure as completed and phones were installed.
passed when the telephone system was taken out of the hands of the Communication
Ministry and ultimately converted into a private company whose goal was profit
for its shareholders. Similar results were achieved by the privatization of
other services that had previously been provided either by the state or the
Even the handling of North American aliya was
transferred to a private organization. This experience should be applied to the
Chief Rabbinate as well.
What exactly does the Chief Rabbinate do? I
wasn’t entirely sure, so I took a look at its website. According to the website,
the rabbinate provides services in the areas of kashrut, certifying rabbis and
religious court judges, and supervising circumcisions.
mention is made of attracting people to the values of the Torah and serving as a
spiritual authority for Jewish communities.
Finally, particular attention
is given to the need to promote the image of the rabbinate through public
relations and similar functions.
These activities are on their face quite
important, but it seems quite clear all of the above could be (and actually are
being) accomplished far better by private initiative.
Let us look at the
A significant portion of the Israeli population does
not abide by the kashrut laws, so they certainly have no or little interest in
the government supplying kashrut certifications.
portion of the population does not rely on the rabbinate, and will only consume
products that have a more strict certification – the so-called “Badatz”
certificates. A minority of the populace relies on the rabbinate or the Badatz
Thus, one might argue, there is indeed a certain measure
of privatization and even competition – namely, the rabbinate versus the Badatz
organizations. However, under the Law Prohibiting Deceptive Practices in
Kashrut, a food item or a business serving food may not call itself “kosher”
unless its has a kashrut certificate issued by the Chief Rabbinate, a local
rabbinate or a rabbi authorized by the rabbinate – even if they are certified by
Rather than promoting competition, the law has granted the
rabbinate a semi-monopoly. Compete you may, but only after we have affixed our
seal – says the rabbinate. It is for this reason that one frequently sees two
and even more kashrut certifications on food products.
If the Chief
Rabbinate were privatized and had to compete with other kashrut organizations,
there would be many producers who would opt to obtain only a Badatz
There would be competition as to price and service – the
two mainstays of a free economy. The cost of kashrut certification would go
down, because no longer would a supplier have to have two
If the rabbinate did not prevail in the contest of the
free economy, it would disappear, as it should.
organizations would also be free of the overriding authority of the Supreme
Court – the well known “Bagatz” process. When during the most recent Shemita
(Sabbatical Year) the Chief Rabbinate sought to take a more strict halachic
stance in interpreting religious law, the Supreme Court intervened and struck
down this position. This situation underlines the absurdity of a government
rabbinate. How can a religious rabbinate be part of a secular government?
Privatized kashrut certifications would be immune from such
The same issues that surround kashrut also apply with
regard to certification of rabbis and judges. Here too the law has granted the
rabbinate a monopoly. If a rabbi does not pass the test administered by the
Chief Rabbinate, he cannot serve as a municipal rabbi, regardless of whether he
has been certified by the greatest yeshivot or the greatest sages of the time.
The process is also highly politicized.
In his autobiography, Rabbi
Shlomo Riskin describes how the rabbinate sought to avoid granting him authority
to act as a municipal rabbi because he was too modern, and did not have a beard.
Each community should have the right to choose its own rabbi, in accordance with
With regard to the rabbinical courts, I have previously, in
these pages, described the hilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) which is
caused by the rabbinical courts in general and the nomination process in
particular. In any case, the rabbinical court is an entity separate from the
Chief Rabbinate, and should operate on the basis of substantive criteria.
Rabbinical court pleaders should administer and license their professions much
in the same way that the Bar Association and Chamber of Accountants perform
these tasks and finance their activities through dues and other
With regard to the other functions of the Chief Rabbinate,
not only would these be better served if they were left to private industry (so
to speak), but in fact one questions whether such services actually
The circumcision department is a good example. While this
department provides testing and guidance, it lacks the most important authority
– licensure. A mohel does not require rabbinate certification to practice his
trade. Despite advertisements to the contrary, the rabbinate does not grant a
“license” to be a mohel. Thus, in one area where the rabbinate could and should
exercise authority, it does not and cannot.
Similarly, one questions
whether the rabbinate actually “attracts people to the values of the Torah” or
whether it serves as a “spiritual authority for Jewish communities.”
would claim that the opposite is true. Does anyone really and realistically look
to the Chief Rabbinate for guidance on essential questions of the day? Is there
a Chief Rabbi who has served as the spiritual advisor of the prime minister, as
former chief rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits served Margaret Thatcher in the UK? In
some cases – e.g. Rabbi Shlomo Amar’s so-called psak halacha (Jewish law
decision) concerning “tycoons” and financial “haircuts,” at least as reported in
the press, it was quite clear that the rabbi had little understanding of the
commercial or legal aspects of the matter. (Since rabbis and rabbinical court
judges are not required to have any secular education, this is not surprising.
Indeed, over the years, I have been asked such basic questions about
legal/financial matters by sitting senior rabbinical judges that I was confused
as to how they could decide serious commercial/personal issues without such
basic knowledge.) The political machinations in preparation for the forthcoming
election of a chief rabbi, the campaigns being waged by the various political
parties and rabbis, the attacks on the chief rabbinate on the backs of city
buses, and the intervention of American rabbis who publicly support one
candidate in large ads in the Israeli process, make it absolutely clear that the
rabbinate is far from a spiritual authority or an attraction to Torah
The above may seem to be a sharp criticism of the Chief
Indeed, it is. But even more so, it is a criticism of a system
and situation that is illogical: a Chief Rabbinate in a secular (if not
Privatizing the Chief Rabbinate (yes, I realize
this may be a euphemism for separation of church and state in Israel), will not
only benefit the public, but it will give the rabbinate its last chance to
become a beacon of spirit in a hostile environment.
The author is an
advocate and attorney at law for the firm of Weksler, Bregman & Co.
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